In it for the Money: Going IMBY

Nukes and peanut butter in Michigan's own backyard

Editor’s note: This column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. 

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

My first job out of college was teaching humanities at a Hippie School for Troubled Youth here in Ann Arbor. Soon after being hired, I attended a school mixer where the dean cornered me in the kitchen and explained that some trucks hauling radioactive waste were scheduled to cut through downtown Ann Arbor.

She suggested we go down and protest by lying down in Main Street and generally boondoggling things up and teaching those bastards a valuable lesson about hauling nuclear waste down our streets [1].

At the time I was lightly anti-nuke. I had been militantly opposed just a few years earlier – and even protested Fermi II in the early ‘90s, when it was in disrepair and operating with questionable regard for public safety – but had since calmed down and learned a bit more about the costs and benefits of various kinds of power generation [2]. Nonetheless, even in my decidedly less-nukes mindset, I was still struck with how backward this protest plan seemed.

It’s no secret that Ann Arbor is a sorta foot-draggy, NIMBY kind of town [3]. Most of us came here from somewhere else; we loved this quaint little town when we landed here in 1975, or ‘85, or ‘95, and we basically don’t want it to ever change (except for the streets getting cleaner, the stores better stocked, and the parking both cheaper and more plentiful – but for God’s sake don’t tear anything down or build anything tall to do it. Also, could you do something about those football games? So loud, and the crowds – UGH!).


The proposed anti-nuke-waste-trucks sit-in would have been a classically NIMBY maneuver: There was no discussion of eradicating nuclear energy in general, just keeping this waste from traversing our streets.

From an economic standpoint, the bulk of such NIMBY maneuvers are classic zero-sum games: The gains on one side translate to losses for someone else. Take this nuke-hauling hypothetical [4]: If there had been nuclear waste and if we had protested it by generally bolloxing up Main Street, that wouldn’t have made the radioactive waste cease to exist; it would have simply shifted the hauling to a community with fewer resources – not just fewer resources to rouse the rabble on that day, but fewer resources to respond to an emergency if one occurred, and less mind-share to grab the national spotlight in the case of such an incident. For the sake of comparison, which story do you think is more likely to start a media scrum:

Mishandling of Radioactive Waste Contaminates Michigan Football Stadium


Concerns Over Nuclear Mishaps in Covert Township

Extra points if you know that the Covert Township in my fake headline is the name of a real township. And a special bonus if you know where it is without Google Maps. And a bonus point on top of that if you know it refers to real problems at Michigan’s Palisades facility, now rated among the nation’s worst nuclear reactors.

Sure, keeping nuclear waste trucks off your streets is textbook MBA-style risk management – i.e., offload as much risk as you can while retaining as much benefit as possible – but it’s shitty neighboring.

If I Had No Peanut Butter

In December, I was reminded of the NIMBY nuclear waste that didn’t get trucked down Main Street. WARNING: This is gonna seem very left-fieldy; just play along for about a paragraph or so and it’ll all come together. December is when Gene Marks – a white, middle-aged, well-meaning contributor to the Forbes blog – basically painted a big dumb Internet bulls-eye on himself with a very earnest, profoundly uninformed column called “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” [5].

The Forbes blog post is very short and very earnest, but just in case you don’t want to click through and read it yourself, the nutshell is basically everything any other clueless, well-meaning, affluent white technologist would advise a child in a socio-economic situation he (the technologist) clearly cannot begin to fathom: Study hard! Buy a cheap computer! Try to get a scholarship to a private school! Build a time machine, go back to December 1997 and buy lots and lots of Apple stock!

To be fair, Marks doesn’t offer that last nugget, but he might as well. When I think about the kids to whom Gene Marks is offering his advice, I think about the kids in the school where my wife teaches. It’s a basically functional school in metro Detroit, serving the children of the faltering middle class (many black, many white, some “other”). Every weekend her school distributes backpacks to just the sort of kids Marks is talking about (not in terms of race, but in terms of socio-economic prospects). These backpacks contain food to carry those kids from Friday to Monday.

Food. Just plain, old, basic food: mac & cheese, bread, apples, tuna. Donations to support this program – which come largely from the immediate community – were down in December, so her school had to stop including peanut butter in those bags.

Again, this is a basically functional community, and these are the “poor black kids” in question, and you’re telling them: Buy a computer (?!?). You’re telling them: Somehow get yourself up to Bloomfield Hills and try to talk someone into giving you one of the handful of scholarships to Cranbrook-Kingswood or Detroit Country Day (?!?). Pardon me, Mr. Marks, but if those same kids respond by telling you to fuck off with your earnest, stupid, insulting advice, I’m just gonna have to take my Cranbrook-educated booksmarts and assert that – aside from falling prey to the sophomoric tendency to use strong words to cover weak writing – they have a valid point, sir.

Why, Maybe, There’s No Peanut Butter

Setting aside the stupid, patronizing, totally uninformed advice, the real problem with a column like “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” is that it implicitly insists that whatever the problem is, it’s that black kid’s problem. It insists that the conditions that make Detroit unlivable (or West Philly or wherever) originate in Detroit (or wherever). Isn’t that akin to believing that some big swaths of forest in northern Ukraine and southern Belarus spontaneously became dangerously radioactive, as though some occult hand smote them, independent of human influence?

Perhaps the violence, joblessness, squalor, drugs, and crime of Detroit (or wherever) did not spring spontaneously from those vacant, poisoned lots. Maybe we exported all of that from our own affluent communities (see, e.g., the drug trade; at least where I grew up in the metro area this was a business operated in Detroit, Southfield, and Oak Park – i.e., economically depressed post-industrial husks – for the benefit of Farmington Hills, Bloomfield Hills, and Birmingham).

This, then, is the dark harvest of our NIMBYism, which at its heart is a heartless, but perfectly above-board, corporate-style cost shifting: We force the weak to accept our risk while we strip the value out of their communities.

Back In MY Backyard: IMBY

Fortunately, now that the problem becomes visible, the solution is clear: Going IMBY.

Isn’t that the most ethical path? Shouldn’t we perhaps insist that the most dangerous or challenging problems stay in our backyards, where we with the clout and wherewithal are best able – and most motivated – to address them? And, oh crap, what do those solutions look like?

Is it really telling a kid who can’t afford peanut butter to go buy a computer? Is it empowering families to flee “failing” schools rather than asking all of us – those using the schools, and those of us simply benefiting from their continued existence – to maybe pony up and fix the damn things? Is it protesting the trucks and reactors even while burning the coal keeps killing asthmatics? Is it protesting the coal while the solar cells are built in China by underage workers?

Or is it suddenly protesting revisions to an emergency manager law in Michigan, even while we’ve been content for decades to let some of our Michigan cities rot from the top down? Is Detroit’s real problem whatever emergency manager might come, or the fact that the rest of us spent forty years insisting that the D wasn’t in our backyard at all?

Anyhow, radioactive toxic waste in my backyard is what I think about when our political action takes the form of protesting in front of a rich dude’s house in Ann Arbor to register our distress about a law some other rich dudes passed in Lansing to govern some way of fixing what’s wrong in Flint, Benton Harbor and Detroit – where the poor black kids can’t afford peanut butter, but sure better study hard, buy a computer, build a time machine, and stay the hell out of our backyards.

[1] I recognize that there are some problems with this anecdote, the first being: If you’re afraid of nuclear contamination, it sorta makes more sense to usher the trucks through your community with due haste, not waylay them for hours while a shaggy guy with a bullhorn argues with cops. (This was back before universal police militarization; when I protested at Fermi II the cops who showed up did get in fistfights with some of the more aggressive protesters. But those cops were wearing day-to-day uniforms and plain old hats, wielded no clubs or chemicals, and mostly rolled their eyes and asked what we thought we were accomplishing by blocking the delivery gates on a Sunday.)

But, more to the essence, why would anyone voluntarily haul any rig down Main Street? It’s narrow, heavily trafficked by pedestrians and possible terrorists, there is no way to avoid being snared by every damn traffic light, and you average a swift walking pace. Of course, this was all long before we entered Terror Reality (!!!), so no one was worried about suicide jihadi movie-plots, but still: From where to where would you need to haul what, in order for Main Street Ann Arbor to be the shortest path? There are only three civil reactors in Michigan: Fermi (in Monroe), Cook (near Bridgman), and the Palisades facility (near South Haven).

I believe this no-nukes educator may have been thinking about the Ford Nuclear Reactor (aka, “The Phoenix Reactor”), University of Michigan’s training reactor (which was active until 2003), but it still seems hard to believe that the Department of Energy would ever chart the shortest path from North Campus to the freeway through the most densely populated corridor in the county. (As an aside to this aside, my dad was purportedly misplaced into some sort of reactor maintenance course in the 1960s. Being an art and architecture student, he was both unqualified for and uninterested in this course of study. Being a college kid in the ‘60s, he also neglected to straighten out this scheduling error prior to the end of add/drop. According to family lore he ultimately almost caused a small meltdown. I believe he failed the course.)

[2] At the risk of pushing too many hot buttons and totally derailing our discussion, I have to confess that, having put together a classroom reference book on the Chernobyl disaster, I’m now hesitantly slightly pro-nuke, if only for the following grim calculus: If we have a major nuclear disaster, there may be hundreds of deaths, as well as long-term lingering health repercussions for life in the immediate geographic area. Burning coal always and annually results in tens of thousands of deaths and major health problems for those in the immediate area of normally operating facilities. This is depressing math, but it is certain. Given the choice, you definitely want a normally operating nuclear reactor in your backyard instead of any sort of hydrocarbon operation.

[3] “Not In My Backyard!” As in, “Yes, we badly need a new homeless shelter. I totally support a referendum, too – hold up … you wanna build it where? But my property values!”

[4] And hypothetical it was: No action was ever taken – heck, I couldn’t even establish if anything remotely radioactive was ever hauled down Main Street. Later I learned that the dean in question was quite possibly inebriated during our discussion, which sort of reframed everything.

[5] Pundits large and small consequently piled on to Marks with glee throughout the holiday season. Much of that was standard rebuttals and tear downs, but Marks also inspired some excellent – if chilling – responses. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s sticks out as the best, and legitimately qualifies as a broad-reaching must-read. If you’ve ever looked at any historical injustice and thought something like “What the hell was up with you, Germany? I would have been Righteous Among the Nations had I been there!” then you really need to take Coates’s claim to heart.

About the author: David Erik Nelson has written columns previously for The Chronicle on topics like medical marijuana and glass-eating clowns. Nelson is the author of various books, including most recently, “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred“. His Nebula-nominated novella “Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate” is now available for Kindle.

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  1. By Jason
    January 18, 2012 at 10:02 am | permalink

    Very nice article David! As you know there are many wonderful folks in our community with an IMBY mindset – working on many difficult issues. They work in the public and private schools, the universities, for profit enterprise, non-profit organizations, in their neighborhoods, and (oh my) in the municipal gov’t. If you ever consider doing a follow up article, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how respect for all (especially those on the opposite side of an ‘issue’) creates a positive environment which helps lead us all to a better future. Thanks again for looking towards the light which exists in our ability.

  2. By Steve Bean
    January 18, 2012 at 12:11 pm | permalink

    Coincidentally, I was reading Donella Meadows’ thoughts on bounded rationality last night. (PDF of her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer available here: [link]. See pp. 106-108.) Meadows proposes a thought experiment in which you essentially trade places with another person:

    “In your new position, you experience the information flows, the incentives and disincentives, the goals and discrepancies, the pressures—the bounded rationality—that goes with that position. It’s possible that you could retain your memory of how things look from another angle, and that you burst forth with innovations that transform the system, but it’s distinctly unlikely. If you become a manager, you probably will stop seeing labor as a deserving partner in production, and start seeing it as a cost to be minimized. If you become a financier, you probably will overinvest during booms and underinvest during busts, along with all the other financiers. If you become very poor, you will see the short-term rationality, the hope, the opportunity, the necessity of having many children. If you are now a fisherman with a mortgage on your boat, a family to support, and imperfect knowledge of the state of the fish population, you will overfish.

    “We teach this point by playing games in which students are put into situations in which they experience the realistic, partial information streams seen by various actors in real systems. As simulated fishermen, they overfish. As ministers of simulated developing nations, they favor the needs of their industries over the needs of their people. As the upper class, they feather their own nests; as the lower class, they become apathetic or rebellious. So would you. In the famous Stanford prison experiment by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, players even took on, in an amazingly short time, the attitudes and behaviors of prison guards and prisoners.”

    This fits in well with my own thesis that the use of money is at the root of so many of our problems, and that ending that use could largely resolve them. The concept of rationality itself stems from the use of money (i.e., the calculation of ratios of value for purposes of exchange—see David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years for more on that.) Framed slightly differently, what I’m suggesting is ending rationality. Framed yet differently, per Coates’ article, I’m proposing the end of slavery to the use of money.

    So if David’s article gets you thinking, “But why are things that way?” Consider that we live in a system and that within that system we use money.

  3. January 18, 2012 at 12:36 pm | permalink

    Just as a point of fact, Rick Snyder’s house is not in Ann Arbor, but Superior Township. This is not a minor quibble, being as many “rich dudes” who identify with Ann Arbor and use it do not pay our taxes.

    I’d also like to point out that many of the protesters were from the NAACP and other civil rights groups, protesting because the emergency managers are being used in primarily black communities.

    I don’t think that called for a general condemnation of all of us who care about the local conditions in our own communities. Many of us do volunteer, give to Food Gatherers, etc. and just because we want decent conditions for ourselves are not trying to condemn others to a hateful existence.

  4. By Mike Mouradian
    January 18, 2012 at 2:37 pm | permalink

    “Hippie School for Troubled Youth here in Ann Arbor”
    “Later I learned that the dean in question was quite possibly inebriated during our discussion”

    This must be one of your works of fiction too.
    Spices up the story but is as inflammatory and misinformed as the actions you challenge.

  5. By Gene Marks
    January 18, 2012 at 3:22 pm | permalink

    Very well written David.

    Just to make sure I’m not as clueless as portrayed, my wife has worked for the past seven years at a west philadelphia middle school where I am also involved (I assistant coach their baseball team). 99% black. Mostly poor. If they were purple then the title would’ve been different. I’m also a product of Philly public schools.

    The column was written from the viewpoint of: what would I tell these kids if I could give any advice, given all the inequalities they face.

    1. Study hard
    2. Get good grades
    3. Go to the best school you can
    4. Use tech
    5. Rely on mentors (particularly if parents aren’t available)

    I may be a clueless middle class white guy…but I’m not sure what race has to do with that advice. It’s pretty basic.

    Anyway – this guy couldn’t have said it any better. Please watch it. [Youtube link] Thanks.

  6. By Barbara
    January 18, 2012 at 4:42 pm | permalink

    Love your writing and your high quality thinking Dave, but I too object to ““Hippie School for Troubled Youth”. For one thing it is redundant. All youth is troubled. The school where you taught had committed, supportive parents many of whom genuinely believed in students directing their own learning. There are many success stories among its alumni. In many ways it is a model of what education ought to be. Cheap shots for whatever reason detract from your arguments.

  7. January 18, 2012 at 5:20 pm | permalink


    I just wanted to take a second to respond, since I fear I’m being misread. First and foremost, I consistently refer to the place I taught as the “Hippie School for Troubled Youth” because the program changed substantially after I left, and it was important that the existing program now operating under that name not be characterized (for good or ill) by my anecdotes. It is a different school now, and I cannot speak for its methods, results, or philosophy. (Also, that schools name was hard for me to say fluidly in public speaking situations, and hard for people to transcribe correctly in interviews; this works much better.)

    But, more to the point, “Hippie School for Troubled Youth” should in no way be read as derogatory to the program in which I taught, nor the work I did while I was there. Back when I was still a teacher I found that friends, family, and well-wishers, in trying to explain what I did for a living, often characterized the program as one for “troubled youths.” I bridled at this until a very close friend finally took me aside and pointed at that, regardless of what we were in fact accomplishing at this school, a program where ~75% of the students in a given year had run afoul of the law, been forced out of one or several public schools, or been hospitalized for psychiatric issues was treating “troubled youths” as far as the outside world was concerned. That you or I knew these to be basically “normal” kids was immaterial. My mother thinks I’m handsome; the larger world gets the deciding vote.

    That said, this is an exciting thread with some long and thoughtful contributions; I hope to swing by and respond in more detail when I have less crap cramming up my sinuses.

    D . . .

  8. By Rod Johnson
    January 18, 2012 at 5:33 pm | permalink

    Gene: if I wasn’t inclined to agree with the assessment of your Forbes contributor, Kashmir Hill (to wit: “Gene Marks has proved to be pretty awesome at trolling the Internet”), I would be now, after reading your disingenuous response. You’re not sure what race has to do with it? Are you the same Gene Marks who wrote “The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the President spoke about that much harder“? To try to reframe the issue as a race-neutral “try hard, never give up,” as if race and privilege were incidental is… I guess faux-naive is the nicest construction I could put on it. Or Gingrichian. But I think Hill got it right.

    “Try harder” makes sense in a system that’s not fundamentally unfair. But if you recognize that the situation really is unfair, should you really put the responsibility for changing that on the victims? Do those of us who benefit from the unfairness not have some responsibility to change it? Why not focus on that aspect of it (though that probably won’t generate as many pageviews)?

  9. By Steve Bean
    January 18, 2012 at 5:36 pm | permalink

    Gene, I think you forgot to advise those kids to also read Forbes. You assistant coach baseball and advise kids to get mentors (presumably for studying) and do several other things that will require more time on their part. Interesting. It’s not basic advice, it’s simplistic, limited in perspective. (For example, how many of those kids go home after school (or get up extra early) to care for younger siblings?) I don’t suppose you happened to read the Meadows excerpt in my previous comment.

    What race has to do with the advice is that you directed it on a racial basis. You’ll have to figure out that one for yourself as to why you did.

    In any case, thanks for putting your thoughts out there.

  10. By alan2102
    January 21, 2012 at 11:03 am | permalink

    Gene writes, in his Forbes blog: “It takes a special kind of kid to succeed. And to succeed even with these tools is much harder for a black kid from West Philadelphia than a white kid from the suburbs.”

    Precisely right. It takes a special kind of kid to overcome those odds (“much harder for a black kid…”). By definition, there are not many of those special kinds of kids. And hence there are not many who succeed. The fundamental environmental inequality (which is why it is “much harder” for some, and much easier for others) dictates the average outcomes over a large population. Across that population there will be, of course, the “special kind of kid” in the (positive) sense you mean it, but there will also be the corresponding “special kind of kid” in the opposite sense, a negative sense. That is, the special kind of kid with less innate resilience and resources, and less cognitive acuity (perhaps due to environmental stresses), etc. THOSE special kinds of kids will, if from impoverished environments, fall on their faces, end up in prison, and so on, much more readily than if they were in a different environment. The bottom line is fundamental environmental inequality. Of course you are right that a few special kids will make it, no matter what. And I don’t think anyone has ever argued with that. But it misses the point. The point is what happens to the average kid. Environment matters, and will determine average outcomes over large populations.

  11. By alan2102
    January 21, 2012 at 6:58 pm | permalink

    On second thought, I have to give Gene some credit.

    Gene wrote: “I may be a clueless middle class white guy…but I’m not sure what race has to do with that advice. It’s pretty basic.”

    Right. It is good basic advice, and it has nothing to do with race. Everyone should be good, work hard, and all that, to maximize their chance of a positive outcome, regardless of the levelness (UNlevelness) of the playing field. The only problem has to do with who is giving the advice to whom. To be effective — and that would include to NOT be perceived as intolerably smug or hypocritical — that advice would have to be dispensed by peers. True peers would be individuals who are racially, socioeconomically, and culturally of the same type, or at least close. The chubby middle-class middle-aged Republican white guy (and Forbes blogger) from the ‘burbs is obviously not even close to being a peer of the poor urban black kid; hence any advice coming from him stands only a slight chance of being effective (and is more likely to be perceived — perhaps correctly — as insufferably smug).

    Again, in deference to Gene: the basic idea is not bad. Personal psychology, including inner intent and motivation, willingness to delay gratification, willingness to buckle down and do things that one does not feel like doing, etc., does have a great impact on individual outcomes, and that psychology (and behavior) can be modified to some extent. The way to do it might perhaps be to have the most-successful kids mentor the less-successful ones — the ones starting to slip through the cracks. Like a “big brother” program, but instead of some older guy from elsewhere, the young punk right next to them in homeroom. This would be beneficial for both parties. The most-successful ones ought to get in the habit of giving back to the less fortunate, and would benefit by doing so.

    Needless to say (I hope!), this idea has NOTHING to do with the urgent need to correct centuries-old injustice and its social spawn (the existence of a persistent, intergenerational underclass), and to ensure equality of opportunity.

    PS: Gene: you need not be a “clueless middle class guy”. You can now be a clue-laden middle class guy. See my post above, and this one. Understand that your advice is good, AND that it cannot possibly compensate for the structural inequality that impels certain outcomes over large populations, (structural inequalities that must be addressed by privileged people like you and me), AND that your advice, however good in the abstract, cannot possibly be effective in the context in question, coming from guys like you. Copische, pardner?

  12. By Alan Benard
    January 24, 2012 at 2:25 pm | permalink

    I’m enjoying the very precise manner in which some commentators define their “backyards.” NIMBY is as NIMBY does — there are no jurisdictional dispensations.